By Katherine Lee, LCSW
I often hear people say they’re nervous to try therapy based on what they’ve heard. Many believe that therapy only involves lying on a couch, being psychoanalyzed or put into a hypnotic state. While this type of therapy still exists, it joins other, current treatment methods that have much more of a collaborative approach. I worry that viewers also get a false impression of therapy based upon ways that the process is depicted in films. How do films mislead us about therapy? What you should expect from therapy in real life?
— Sessions in the movies seem to go on for sustained lengths, with time not appearing to be a factor.
I’ve seen a recent film in which the main character seems to be the one to decide when she’s finished with each session after spending an inordinate amount of time with her therapist. There are other movies that come to mind, such as “Prince of Tides,” in which no boundaries seem to be set regarding when the sessions begin and when they end. Although having the luxury of spending hours exploring inner psyche or discussing problems may sound appealing to some—to others it sounds stifling and draining. Typically, therapy sessions last between 45-60 minutes. Part of my job is to monitor direction and length of session, whilst allowing you the chance to talk, to remain engaged, and to be helpful. While this entails that I’m not checking my watch every 5 minutes, it does mean that it’s important for me to remain cognizant of when we’re nearing close to the end. I find that many clients appreciate that it’s my responsibility to keep session length structured, because it feels well managed, and they’re more able to speak freely without looking at the clock.
— Therapists in the movies appear “pushy” or threatening if the client refuses to talk about the past.
In my opinion—being a good therapist entails finding a balance between being supportive, meeting a client where he/she is at, and also having the skills to help someone gain motivation in moving forward, which may include discussing past trauma/abuse. Some movies depict therapists practically finger-wagging, and yelling at clients that they “have to” talk about their childhood. Not only can this attitude send a client running to the hills—they may be reluctant to ever engage in a therapeutic process again. There are much more effective, kind, and supportive approaches to helping someone make the decision to “go there” in therapy.
— Boundaries between therapists/clients in general seem to be unprofessional and “too close for comfort”
We’ve all seen films in which therapists cross ethical boundaries, one of the most notorious being “Prince of Tides.” In this movie a therapist chooses to provide therapy to her patient’s brother and then becomes sexually involved with him. But there are many other ways that therapists blur boundaries in films, some of which are meant to be seen as comedic. Visiting one’s home unannounced, giving car rides, following a client on a summer vacation, or inviting a client to a barbecue at home with family members are just a few examples. Clients in real life may find themselves wondering what kinds of lives their therapists live, or how they act outside of their office, and this is very normal. But boundaries exist to protect the therapy, and to allow the client the best opportunity at being vulnerable, and receiving support.
As a therapist, I believe that most clients come to us looking for a professional, and structured relationship. I enjoy working with those who either have a history of therapy, or who are new to therapy for the first time. Making the decision to open up in a therapeutic environment is a big step—it’s crucial to sense that your first experience with a therapist will feel comfortable.